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1 9 8 1 – Current (USA)

The all-new 24-hour music video cable channel (originally commercial-free) debuted on 1 August 1981 with a transmission of The Buggles‘ prophetic Video Killed The Radio Star and was an immediate sensation – at least amongst Americans lucky enough to get it through their local cable service.

How new and bold was it? It was the first cable channel to broadcast in stereo – even before there were stereo televisions. To get stereo sound you had to get an adapter from the cable company that plugged into your normal audio stereo system.

In a move that echoed the early days of television, many bars drew in extra business by hanging “We have MTV” signs in their window. It seemed so innocuous that it was impossible to imagine with what aggression it would grow into its present omnipotent form.


The network’s five original VJ’s (pictured above) – an actress, a bartender, two ex-radio DJ’s and a college graduate – became overnight stars as a nation’s youth instantly became addicted to three-minute stabs of music and visuals.

As most American recording acts and record companies were not in the habit of making videos, the channel was initially dominated by English artists. While this was fine for folks interested in the latest bands (and fashions) coming out of the UK, many critics noticed a pronounced lack of black artists.

Later, the MTV network came out with VH1 (Video Hits One) a music station for older viewers, and Nickelodeon, a children’s station.

These two stations and the original MTV station gave the network a station for just about every audience – which no doubt satisfied many advertisement agencies.

The MTV network went on to become a gigantic franchise, promoting an idealised teenage lifestyle, endorsing products and promoting attitudes.

mtv_1bcA perfect example of this advertising scenario is Michael Jackson‘s Beat It video. In the early 1980’s the already popular pop singer came onto the screen wearing a red leather jacket and a sparkling glove. He introduced an ankle-flicking dance style that suited the beat of his music.

Soon children across the US were wearing replicas of the clothes and “moon-walking” down the hallways of their schools. In this scenario, Michael Jackson, pop music, red leather jackets, dancing, and Motown Records all became popular as a result of a single video.

In 1984, the Dire Straits hit Money For Nothing, had people around the country singing the verse, “I want my MTV.”

The lyrics of the song were intended to be satirical and talked about the unfairness of being an MTV star. In reality, Dire Straits themselves were MTV stars, and just as the imaginary voice in the song chanted “I want my MTV,” everyone wanted their MTV, including foreign countries.

In the late 80’s, MTV expanded to Australia, South America, Holland, Germany and many other European countries.

mtv_045An unfortunate part of the MTV legacy is that things which used to count, such as being a good composer, player or singer, were increasingly lost in the desperate rush to visualise everything.

These days it is possible to be all of the above and still get nowhere in the pop world simply by not looking good in a video or, worse still, not even making one.

In 1981, no one expected MTV to become such a powerful empire – It developed a new style of entertainment that competitors could only wish to copy.

Becoming an MTV star was the ultimate dream to many people. Advertisers were ecstatic with the network’s stations that satisfied so many viewers, and Music videos forever changed the face of music.

MTV cost $20 million to set up, but it was a brilliant idea because the programming (ie: music videos) came free. One major record label, Polygram, initially baulked at the idea of providing material for nothing but was soon forced to change its mind when MTV’s influence on the record-buying public became evident.

MTV is now beamed into over 281 million households in 79 countries around the globe, which means it can be seen by one in four of the world’s total TV audience.

Great over-played MTV videos of the 80s

Pat Benatar – “Love Is A Battlefield” (1983)
Pat and her street-trash new wave dance troupe shake their boobs in syncopated rage over the plight of a teenage hooker.

Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams” (1983)
Hands up who thought Annie Lennox was a man when this video first aired? And what was with the cows?

A-ha – “Take On Me” (1985)
Real girl gets sucked into a comic book but is saved by cute Norwegian band guys and racing driver cartoon . . .

ZZ Top – “Legs” (1984)
Three trailer-park bimbos use their legs to get a car big enough to drive like hell away from three bearded perverted hillbillies.

Michael Jackson – “Thriller” (1984)
More a mini-series than a music clip. Vincent Price narrates Michael’s transformation into a werewolf /zombie.

J. Geils Band – “Centrefold” (1982)
Started and ended the whole milk-in-a-snare-drum craze

Van Halen – “Hot For Teacher” (1984)
In which a bunch of kids turn their classroom into a strip club and hoot as their babe of a teacher gets naked . . .

Robert Palmer – “Addicted To Love” (1986)
Comatose women dressed as sex-bomb mannequins sway out of rhythm with instruments hanging on them. Sexist? Dya think?